Thursday, June 18, 2009

Appreciating Soyinka's lecture

ON Tuesday, March 3, 2009, in Lagos, Professor Wole Soyinka delivered a lecture, Between nation space and nationhood to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The Guardian published the full text of the lecture the following two days: (Wednesday, March 4 and Thursday, March 5), under the caption Not yet a nation. This caption immediately increased my interest because a little less than twenty-one years earlier, on September 22, 1988, this column had carried my article of the same title. But, as I said last week, my interest in this particular lecture goes beyond this coincidence.

Professor Soyinka's lecture is fairly long: about 8,500 words, that is, the length of six standard opinion articles in The Guardian. The present piece is not a review, but an appreciation - historical, political and ideological - of aspects of the lecture that I believe are of immediate public interest. These areas of immediate interest account for about a fifth of the lecture. But before I proceed with the appreciation, I would advise and encourage anyone who sees the need to read the lecture - and I sincerely think it is worth reading and studying - to be patient in doing so. The effort will be rewarding. Soyinka has a way of "running away" from the reader. You have to "arrest" him as you read him.

On this question of "running away', let me share a personal experience. Wole Sonyinka, you will recall, was 70 years old in July 2004. A series of lectures was organised across the country to mark the event. I delivered the lecture organised in Calabar. In Lagos, Professor Biodun Jeyifo, a former student of Soyinka delivered the main lecture. He titled it Oguntoyinbo: Wole Soyinka and Igilango Geesi. I pursued and got a copy of the lecture. My hope was that it would help me "decode" Soyinka whom I often find really hard to penetrate. But after reading Jeyifo's lecture I saw that I needed someone to "decode" the lecturer for me. In other words I needed a decoder for Soyinka's anticipated decoder.

I kept my frustration to myself, but sent an angry message to BJ (as Jeyifo is called by friends and comrades) sharply rebuking him for not sending the copies of the books and essays I learnt he had written on Wole Soyinka. He apologised profusely and sent me the books - three of them - in record time. My hope was that the books would help me decode BJ's Soyinka lecture. But after spending just an hour examining the books I decided that they belong to the public library we run in town, not the small collection I keep at home in my study. The point is that Jeyifo's books are "worse" than his lecture. After this experience, I decided no longer to seek any decoder, but to be patient when reading Soyinka - and indeed BJ. As I said the effort is always rewarding.

Back to Wole Soyinka's March lecture. We may begin with the summary which is embodied in the last paragraph: "And thus, finally, the question: Is Nigeria a nation today? My answer is - Not yet. Is Nigeria aspiring to be a nation? The answer - Unsure. Can it? Possibly. Should it? My answer is absolutely non-sentimental, purely technical and subjective: I prefer not to have to apply for yet another visa when I need to travel to Enugu or Borno".

And then the optimistic last sentence: "If it is any consolation - let us simply remember - we are not alone in this predicament. So, for now, we may continue to sleep, dream, open our eyes at dawn on the recurring vision of nationhood on the horizon, hopefully not receding, indeed, almost close to touch, requiring only the complete surrender of hegemonic dreams, the ethos of inclusivity, the recognition of religious privacy, and the manifested will of the authentic landowners of a designated nation space".

I agree with Soyinka's summary and last sentence embodying the minimum conditions for the construction of a nation out of Nigeria's nation space. But if this was all, then this appreciation would have been unnecessary. I would have simply sat back and enjoyed the intellectual offering. My deeper interest however lies in what I see as unprecedented closeness between some of Soyinka's core theses and the Marxist positions on the questions posed. I asked myself: Is this an instance of "ideological convergence" and "postmodernist transcendence" the advent of which many cosmopolitan intellectuals have been proclaiming?

Soyinka opened his lecture with the sentence: "We all recall who first designated Nigeria as a mere 'geographical expression' - none other than the Sage of Ikenne, the centennial of whose birth we are celebrating today - Chief Obafemi Awolowo". Soyinka remembered that when Chief Awolowo made this declaration in a book published towards the end of the 1940s, he did not enjoy total support among his compatriots. In fact, the declaration pitched him against certain currents in the nationalists movement.

Younger Nigerians may have to do their own research to identify the currents and the specific ways the disagreements were resolved, or exhausted, or transcended by history, or made permanent till the protagonists went to see their Maker. But even then two quick points can be made. First, Chief Awolowo remained consistent in his views - and their logical implications - throughout his life time, and worked hard, according to his own convictions, to transform Nigeria from a "mere geographical expression' into a nation. He did not succeed. Secondly, among those who opposed and bitterly criticised Awolowo at the time were some of the most selfless and dedicated personages that the national liberation struggles in Nigeria produced.

That was about 60 years ago. What is Soyinka's assessment today? That brings us to one of his early thesis: A nation is brought into being through the political - and inclusive - will of its citizens, not through mere naming. I can name my dog Bill. Because some bipeds also bear the name of Bill does not make my dog a human being". I agree. And I recall that in Capital, Volume 1 (1867). Chapter 1 (titled Commodities), Karl Marx made a similar point when criticising the practice of "naming" in political economy: "The name of a thing is something distinct from the qualities of the thing. I know noting about a man by knowing that his name is Jacob".

Then came Soyinka's second thesis, perhaps the main thesis of the lecture: "On my part, I have had cause to refer to the entity known as Nigeria as a nation space". It was for Soyinka a convenient way of avoiding a "pointless debate": namely, if Nigeria is not a nation, then what is it? I agree with the notion of nation space and the distinction between "nation space" and "nationhood" - just as I agreed with the distinction which Karl Marx tried to draw in his Poverty of Philosophy (1847) between "class-in-itself" and "class-for-itself".

Wole Soyinka's next thesis gladdens my heart: "We need to remind ourselves, again and again, that the state is not the nation. That the state is historically opposed to nation-becoming, even while spouting nationalist fervour. It will always act in its own interest, not in the interest of the nation entity. A nation space may qualify for a police state, including increasingly, the theocratic kind, but it is still not a nation". When I read these lines I stood up and did a "solo dance". Thank you, Kongi: The state is not the nation! You may appropriate our resources to acquire the means to commit mass murder and rape. Your voice may temporarily be the only one that is being heard. But Soyinka says, and I agree completely: You are not the nation!

This is a core Marxist thesis: The state is simply not the nation. Marxists have long learnt to avoid trying to define a nation technically. But they understand that nations are formed primarily in three ways, they may be formed from states; they may be formed in struggle against foreign oppression; and they may emerge from previously attained cultural solidarity. We also understand that a nation always has a specified territory; a certain minimum size; some measured integration, and a consciousness of itself as a nation. We understand that the first and last points are the key ones: a specified territory and self-consciousness. You may wish to see Horace Davis' Marxist theory of nationalism.

We then come to the thesis that made me dance for the second time: "The contest between state and nation is an ancient one, and for a simple reason - the interests of state and nation seldom coincide. On the contrary, we find that both are constantly at loggerheads with each other. Do not be fooled by appearance; exceptions or political punditry - even the legislatures that are voted in the most ideal circumstances, by popular mandate, cease thereby to be part of the nation. Once elected, they assume their functions as arms of State".

I paused at this stage to convince myself that I was still reading Wole Soyinka. Once convinced, I continued: "That they (that is, the elected legislatures) come into conflict with the executive arm of state is nothing strange - there is always a tussle for supremacy even within the internal arrangements of robbery syndicates, each trying to bloody the nose of the other". Thank you, Kongi.